NEW BILL TO OUTLAW DISCRIMINATION AGAINST GAYS AND DISABLED
Green MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) and Gay Rights campaigner Patrick Harvie Talks to Broken Chains.
A Bill introduced by Green MSP Patrick Harvie, the Offences (Aggravation by Prejudice) (Scotland) Bill, has successfully navigated its way through the Scottish Parliament and been passed by majority.
Designed to build on former legislation covering offences driven by racial or religious intolerance, the new act will now make hate crime aimed at gays and the disabled illegal. The new Bill will extend the law to cover offences motivated against persons because of their sexual orientation and/or disability.
Harvie, 36, was first elected as an MSP in 2003. He is an active campaigner on equality issues, is Vice President of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association and has been prominent in the introduction of the new bill since 2007.
"I can't claim the credit (for the bill)" he told me modestly. "Back in 2003 the Criminal Justice Act was passed, which placed aggravation by religious prejudice on a statutory footing. This added to UK legislation which did the same for racial prejudice. In debating the change MSP's were aware that other forms of hate crime may need the same mechanism. But while the proposal for religious prejudice was agreed a similar proposal from my colleague Robin Harper was not accepted by the government of the day.
" At the time the ruling administration did set up a hate crime working group and carried out some research. But the recommendation to introduce a Bill to prosecute those who offended against individuals because of their sexual orientation, transgender identity and/or disability was not accepted.
In the subsequent four years, three of the major parties had incorporated a commitment to tackle the issue into their manifestoes. Following the 2007 election and a change in the parliament's powerbase, Patrick felt the time was right to revisit the issue.
"This proposal had been on the agenda for some years before I had the opportunity to introduce it" Patrick told me candidly. "We'd been trying to get this onto the statute book for some years and while I could have waited another year and introduced it as an amendment to the next criminal justice bill, I just wanted to get the thing dealt with once and for all."
Identifying the opportunity was one thing, having the Bill passed, however, was another. The Conservatives were still opposed and the Bill was not destined to enjoy a totally smooth and unhindered ride through parliament. Nevertheless, with the change in power and composition of the parliament Patrick was convinced the time was right and proceeded to introduce the proposal to legislate on these matters.
Once Harvie had introduced the Bill he soon gathered a cross party consensus which would outnumber the Conservative rump and take the Bill forward toward law.
"Given the support of the government who provided a team of civil servants to support me" he explained, "it was relatively easy to be sure that we would have a majority. When the Labour group announced their support, it was clear that the majority would be very strong indeed."
Eventually Patrick's Bill gathered full support from the parliament and, in the end, its journey from proposal to law was relatively straightforward.
"There was also a suggestion from some MSP's that the Bill should specify the sentences...or allow Ministers to introduce further aggravations without more legislation. However I took the view, as did Government, that courts should be free to determine the variation to a sentence for an aggravated offence given the individual circumstances. In the end none of these changes were proposed as formal amendments, and the Bill was agreed unanimously and without changes."
But, of course, the story doesn't end there, with the opportunity to bring legislation Patrick is determined to make sure that all bases are covered. To do this he is democratic about the way forward.
"I am now working with some of the organisations which supported me to make sure that the implementation is a success."
It is this thoroughness and attention to detail, not to mention determination, which has driven Patrick Harvie's long overdue, though nevertheless, very welcome Bill.